A world of Israeli cooking from Zahav chef Michael Solomonov

Chef Mike Zahav (Michael Persico)

Put down that plastic container of hummus and back away from the fridge. Michael Solomonov, the star Philadelphia chef and author of the cookbook "Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking," has a better idea: Make it yourself. His new volume, which is part memoir and part guidebook to the vibrant flavors of the Middle East, gives home cooks the tools they need to make those dazzling chickpea dips, among many other mouthwatering dishes, from scratch.

"The flavor is totally different," he said of homemade hummus, of which he offers recipes for seven variations - everything from the classic tahini-laced mousse to a decadent warm lemon-butter-garlic mash.

"It doesn't taste like you've cracked it open out of a fridge, like you've ripped the plastic lid off it."

Solomonov, who was born in Israel but lived in the U.S. from ages 2 to 15, rose to prominence when he opened Zahav in 2008 with business partner Steven Cook. The Philadelphia restaurant electrified critics and foodies with its take on modern Israeli cuisine, which reflects an amalgam of cultures and flavors that coexist in one geographically tiny melting pot. In 2011, Solomonov picked up the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic.

In "Zahav," readers are privy not only to Solomonov's techniques and passionate advocacy for ingredients (there is an entire chapter devoted to sesame paste), but to his personal struggles and triumphs. Alongside recipes, he shares memories of his family, hints of his "tendency toward addiction" and writes of his intense grief over the death of his brother, an Israel Defense Forces soldier killed by sniper fire. The book, which he co-wrote with Cook, would be "less interesting without our context," he said.

"He's a little bit under the radar for how great he really is," said Gavin Kaysen, chef and owner of Minneapolis' Spoon and Stable, who befriended Solomonov about five years ago in New York. "He has a lot of restaurants in Philadelphia; he does extremely well; his food is delicious, and he has an incredible story of what he's beaten in terms of addiction, an incredible feat on its own. It's been great to see where he's taken himself."

Now, Solomonov is taking his food on the road. To promote the release of "Zahav," he is cooking in his friends' kitchens all over the country - including Kaysen's.

As a chef whose fame grew outside the closely watched petri dish that is the New York City restaurant scene, he can understand why chefs such as his friend Kaysen are thriving in other parts of the country that are more accessible, with cheaper housing and better quality of life.

"That seems to be the trend right now, mostly because New York food writers and chefs are finally moving out of New York," he said. "When we opened Zahav, we thought we would maybe end up in New York opening another Zahav, and it's great that we don't have to do that."

And now everyone can eat his food, regardless of location. "Zahav" breaks down Solomonov's spin on Israeli cuisine into concepts and ideas rather than courses. One chapter deals exclusively in salatim, or salads - little vegetable dishes that kick off an Israeli meal; another focuses on meze - small plates with big flavor. The chapter that goes "beyond chicken soup" introduces many Americans to a maple-syrup-scented Yemenite beef soup thickened with fenugreek.

Then, there's the aforementioned chapter devoted entirely to tehina, the Hebrew word for tahini, a ground sesame paste. Tehina is the foundation for classic hummus, a drizzle for meats, a binder for salads and a unique basis for candies and confections. Solomonov is practically a tehina evangelist. He calls it the "No. 1" defining element of Israeli cuisine.

"That's the rich and the creamy of Israeli cooking," he said. It provides a dairy-like element in a cuisine that largely avoids mixing dairy with meat because of Jewish dietary laws. Adapting to those restrictions is what sets Israeli food apart from other Middle Eastern cuisines, he argues.

Most restaurants in Israel are kosher "from a marketability standpoint," he said. "You don't see bacon on every menu, even though bacon is there. And there are burger restaurants that don't have any sort of religious ideology; they just don't serve cheese. They want to hit the whole market." So when a meat dish calls for something creamy, tehina is the answer, he said.

Other common ingredients in Israeli cuisine are harder to find here - smoky Urfa pepper that tops his recipe for Turkish hummus; baharat, a Middle Eastern pumpkin-pie-like spice blend; pomegranate molasses, which he ate as a child with tehina like a PB&J. Some of the spice mixtures and condiments are easy enough to assemble, but they do mean an extra step before any of the delicious results can hit your mouth. Their inclusion in the recipes was deliberate, Solomonov said.

"We want the food to be accessible and not mysterious, not behind this veil of Middle Eastern cooking [like] ‘This is so foreign to me,'" he said. "Everything is physically accessible and the cooking is quite simple. We just try to take away some of the cultural barriers."

He admits some recipes will be daunting to the home cook, such as charcoal-fired meats that can't be cooked indoors, and an extravagant lamb shoulder that the restaurant smokes in smokers from Texas. But everything is adaptable in cooking, he said.

"Consistency in our restaurant with professional chefs, with me here all the time, is the biggest issue we have," he said. "So putting something on paper, giving it to somebody else and saying, ‘This is how you're going to do it,' you're always subject to change and reinterpretation. But we have guidelines for everything, and hopefully people will be OK with [messing] things up.

"That's how you come up with great things," he added. "You make mistakes."

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TURKISH HUMMUS

Makes about 3 cups.

Note: This variation has become one of the most popular variations at Zahav, an Israeli restaurant. From "Zahav" by Michael Solomonov.

For the chickpeas:

1 cup dried chickpeas

2 teaspoons baking soda, divided

1 head garlic

Olive oil

4 tablespoons butter

Juice of 1 lemon

Salt

Ground ancho chiles (or, preferred, ground Urfa pepper, a Turkish variety)

To prepare the chickpeas: Place the chickpeas in a large bowl with 1 teaspoon of the baking soda and cover with water. (The chickpeas will double in volume, so use more water than you think you need.) Soak the chickpeas overnight at room temperature. The next day, drain the chickpeas and rinse under cold water.

Place the chickpeas in a large pot with the remaining 1 teaspoon baking soda and add cold water to cover by at least 4 inches. Bring the chickpeas to a boil over high heat, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface. Lower the heat to medium, cover the pot, and continue to simmer for about 1 hour, until the chickpeas are completely tender. Then simmer them a little more. (The secret to creamy hummus is overcooked chickpeas; don't worry if they are mushy and falling apart a little.) Drain. Reserve a few chickpeas to be used as a garnish.

To prepare the hummus: Cut the top off a head of garlic, drizzle it with olive oil, and roast it in a 350-degree oven until brown and very soft. Squeeze out the roasted garlic into a medium saucepan and add the butter. Melt the butter slowly with the garlic. Combine the cooked chickpeas, the butter-garlic mixture, and the lemon juice in a food processor and purée until smooth. Salt well.

Transfer to an ovenproof dish and sprinkle some whole cooked chickpeas on top. Bake until the top is golden brown, about 5 minutes. Garnish with olive oil and sprinkles of ground ancho pepper, and serve.

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©2015 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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